A catastrophe vanquished

After officially becoming an Israeli symbol, Noam Gershony is right where he needs to be: on vacation, relaxing and having fun with a group of close friends.

Noam Gershony 521 (photo credit: Raz Livnat)
Noam Gershony 521
(photo credit: Raz Livnat)
It is early morning in Las Vegas. Noam Gershony’s voice on the other end of the phone still sounds a little drowsy.
It has been two weeks since he moved an entire country by winning the gold medal at the Paralympics tennis tournament.
Click to view special supplement: The coach behind the champion.
But now, after officially becoming an Israeli symbol, after receiving congratulations from the president, prime minister and IDF chief of staff, he is right where he needs to be: on vacation, relaxing and having fun with a group of close friends. He intends to return home only after the High Holy Days.
“Ever since the injury, once a year, my friends and I go on a few weeks’ vacation to Las Vegas. There is no doubt that this year it came at the right time,” says the 29-year-old Kfar Saba native with an audible smile.
Since he beat his main rival, David Wagner, in the final of the Olympic tournament (1:6, 3:6), his life has changed dramatically – and not for the first time. Medals notwithstanding, life for Gershony will forever be divided into two – before the night of July 20, 2006, and afterward. That was the night his IDF helicopter crashed, leaving him critically wounded and forced to use a wheelchair. Today he can walk using a device that fits on his leg, but he still requires a wheelchair for tennis.
He did not initially see himself joining the air force. His dream was to be a combat soldier. But shortly before enlisting in the army, his priorities changed.
“I realized it was a challenge. Not everyone can be a pilot. It is the most exclusive course in the army. At some point I decided to go for it,” he recalls.
He met the challenge and eventually became a helicopter pilot. Maj. R., Gershony’s best friend from flight training, who accompanied him to the Olympic Final in London, recalls, “Noam graduated the Pilots’ Course with honors – not because he always aspired to get first place, but because he always met all of the course requirements, while helping others. He even helped me once in a fitness test, instead of running and winning first place.
“He was always very extreme when it came to sports,” he continues. “It was always part of his life. He would play soccer, basketball, volleyball, and even run around the base on Saturdays. After the injuries he did not give up, and today you can see the results. We know how badly he wanted this.”
SINCE HIS Olympic victory, Gershony has become a household name in Israel. He has had cover pages in the newspapers, received invitations to TV talk shows and met with leaders of the state.
The IDF chief wrote him, declaring, “I am thrilled and honor your incredible achievement; personally, as Benny Gantz, and as the chief of staff of the army you are a part of. I would be happy if you would come visit me in my office, so I can give you a hug and salute you for your outstanding accomplishment and for having come such a long way since your injury.”
President Shimon Peres greeted him by saying, “You brought an exciting surprise to the country and to the people of Israel. You have proven you are just as good on the court as you are in the sky – as talented at flying Apache helicopters as you are at tennis. We are proud of your achievement. Good for you! You are the best – be strong and have courage!”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also sent warm words: “I was moved by your victory. The state of Israel embraces you for the outstanding accomplishment. You symbolize the triumph of the human spirit over the hardships created by the reality in which we live. This is a gold medal for you and for the country.”
But Gershony is not really a man of ceremonies and celebrations. It did not come as a surprise to his family and friends when, three days after his return to Israel, he boarded yet another plane and took off for his US vacation.
“It is true that the final result is great, and I returned to Israel with two medals [he also won the bronze medal in the doubles tournament with his partner, Shraga Weinberg], but the way [there] is much more important to me,” he says. “Winning the medal involves many small details that are not necessarily up to you: luck, fate, a good day, a not-so-good day. I could easily have lost the final, or even the first game in the tournament, where I came close to losing. It is clear to me that if that were the case, everything would have been different.”
Ultimately, he says, “I don’t think the gold medal really matters.”
So what does really matter? “Enjoying life, traveling, having a good time, meeting people, being in new places,” he says. “I always enjoyed life. Before and after the injury.”
THE NIGHT that changed everything for Gershony occurred toward the end of the Second Lebanon War, when he boarded an Apache helicopter for a mission across the border, alongside another helicopter, both from the “Magic Touch” squadron.
Near the Koah Junction, south of Kiryat Shmona, the two helicopters collided and crashed to the ground. Maj. Ran Kochva, who was with him in the helicopter, died instantly.
Of the event itself and the moments leading up to it, Gershony does not remember anything. But he has looked over the inquiries, trying to figure out what happened and how. In hindsight, he also takes full responsibility.
“We collided with them,” he says. “This was a human error, and as the rear pilot, I am accountable. I do not know what happened there, I don’t remember, and Ran was killed, so I don’t have any way to find out.” Nonetheless, he says, “I am at peace with myself. I went on the flight fit for flying.”
Gershony suffered from multiple fractures in almost every part of his body. Lt.-Col. Dr. Yoav, from the 669 rescue unit, was the first doctor who saw him.
“We met Noam when he was in a deep state of shock,” Yoav recalls. “Bleeding from numerous places – from his ears, his nose and his mouth. He also suffered from two open fractures that were very prominent in the upper and lower sections of his body. He was fading in and out of consciousness. He was very pale, very cold, and had very low blood pressure. We did not feel a pulse anywhere on his body.
“The message we received from people around was that there was nothing left to do,” he continues.
“But we still decided to try. We started resuscitation, which included artificial respiration and monitoring circulation. After stabilizing him, we began the journey to Rambam Medical Center [in Haifa]. On the way, Noam had a respiratory crash, which required landing in a hospital in Safed. Eventually we were able to make it to Rambam, mostly thanks to his mental strength.”
His mother, Pnina, remembers that night. “When an army representative knocked on the door that night, we did not know what state Noam was in,” she recalls.
“All he said was that Noam was in critical condition. We were told that his head was fine, though, and that it did not suffer any injury. We were glad to hear that. We had so many questions for the doctors. What is going to happen? What are Noam’s chances? How many surgeries he will require?
“The doctors gave us perspective. They said they were going to start with one surgery, and then another one, and helped us sort our thoughts.” His father, Moshe, continues, “At a certain point, we did not understand the way they were working.
One night, at a late hour, I asked the ICU doctor what was scheduled for tomorrow. He looked at me and said, ‘Listen, we will start by going through the next hour, and the hour after that, until morning comes, and we will see then.’ It teaches us that some things have to be handled one step at a time, and it illustrates how severe Noam’s condition was, that it was not even clear if he would make it to the next hour. We were just so happy to have him back.”
Dr. Yaron Bar-Lavie, who heads the ICU at Rambam, says it comes as no surprise to him that Gershony won the gold medal.
“While he stayed at the hospital’s ICU he had to deal with much more difficult challenges,” he says. “He was fighting for his life on a daily basis. He injured his back and legs severely, and went through countless operations.”
According to Bar-Lavie, the wounds that the 2006 war caused were “unusually harsh.”
“The ICU took in 62 severely wounded – most of them were soldiers,” he says. “[But] every one of them had a unique and moving personal story. There is no doubt that the day Noam started walking again was one of the most moving days I experienced.”
After being released from the ICU at Rambam, Gershony was hospitalized at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer for six months. After that, he began the rehabilitation process: a year of treatments, daily challenges and rebuilding his life.
“I was very fortunate to survive that event,” he says. “Ran was killed immediately, and another good friend of mine, Tom Farkash, was killed just days later in an operational accident. I chose to look at the glass as half-full. I was alive. There is no doubt that what I went through puts everything in perspective.”
He also believes his experience contributed to his success in tennis. “I noticed that I was a lot less nervous than the rest of my opponents in the tournament. I am more balanced than them. It helps me.”
A YEAR after the injury, as part of the rehabilitation process, Gershony arrived at Beit Halohem in Tel Aviv for the first time. While touring the facilities, he came to the tennis court and met Nimrod Bichler, who would later become his coach and one of the people closest to him.
“It was in the middle of 2007,” Bichler recalls. “He rolled to the court, skinny, smiling, unshaven. From the very first handshake, I could tell that there was a limitation there. This is something that, if you have any experience with training disabled people, you notice right away. At that moment I thought, it is going to be a challenge to train him.”
He did not even think of the possibility of Gershony training for the Olympics, he says.
“Even at first sight, by the way he was holding the racket, you could estimate the level of the disability, and know what to expect. It was clear to me that working with him was not going to be easy.”
Nonetheless, he continues, “he is a talented guy. He got almost everything I explained to him, but there were many things that he just could not do physically. I had to use nonconventional techniques.”
The 10 months leading to the Olympic Games were very intense.
“My life resembled the intensity of healthy players: airports, hotels and tennis courts,” recalls Gershony. “I did not have time left for anything else. Obviously it came with a price: to be far away from family and friends, and... it is very difficult to start an intensive relationship with a girl when you are off for two weeks abroad on a monthly basis.”
The financial issue was also a consideration. The total yearly prizes a wheelchair tennis player can earn do not exceed $20,000.
“It is a very complicated financial decision,” he says. “But at some point during this year, I did not care anymore. I decided that I wanted an Olympic medal, and nothing was going to stop me.”
IN THE eighth final, on his first game in the Olympics, he went through an exhausting and difficult battle against the British Jamie Burdekin, who had a lot of support from the home audience. Only after an hour and 48 minutes was he able to win over his stubborn opponent in three sets. In the quarter-final, he easily beat American Bryan Barten in two sets.
In the semifinal he met a familiar opponent – fellow Israeli Weinberg. Gershony got an easy win, guaranteeing him a place in the final.
“It was a very strange feeling. Everything I have accomplished in life can be a bit misleading – I am not really a man of achievements,” he insists, reiterating his conviction that the path is more important than the final result.
“This notion has been with me my whole life, in every sport I practiced. If I do not play well and win, I am not satisfied. If I win and do not have fun, I am not happy.
I’d rather lose but enjoy myself and feel I gave my all. Obviously I arrived at the Olympics with a specific goal in mind, but for me, it does not justify any means. The most important thing is to have fun.”
That was why his achievement felt so strange, he says with a laugh – “because from the moment I got to the final, there was nothing I wanted more than this gold medal. I really wanted to win.”
When he went onto the court, he noticed quite a few faces he recognized on the balcony: his friends from the Magic Touch squadron. To the pilots, who had come with their families, it was clear that Gershony would take the gold. They were so sure, they had bought tickets to the final ahead of time.
“You are crazy,” he told them before the crucial game.
“His opponent didn’t stand a chance,” Maj. R. declares. “Noam ran him over. Just as the second set started, there was a strong feeling he was going to take the gold. We were ecstatic. We yelled, ‘El, El Israel,’ and the Americans on the left yelled, ‘Ay, Ay, USA,’ but we were louder. We can’t help it, we are wilder.”
Gershony beat Wagner in two sets. It was Israel’s first and only gold medal in the Paralympics.
The Israeli audience immediately began singing “The Whole World Is a Very Narrow Bridge.” Gershony went to the podium, accepted the gold medal, looked at the Israeli flag as it reached the top of the pole, and listened to the national anthem. Suddenly he started crying.
“I never thought I would represent the country in anything,” he says. “You can’t explain the feeling that goes through you when the anthem is played live, in front of so many people. In the opening ceremony, I nearly cried with excitement, but in that moment it was too much for me, and everything came out. I could not stop the tears.”
Where will he go from here? He doesn’t really know, he says.
“I do not think I will use the new status to become an administrator for the sports agency. I will be very happy if my story raises more awareness for handicapped sports. Getting more people involved would be all the reward I desire.”
Still, he says, he isn’t looking so far ahead. “I am trying to live life in the best way I can while I am living it. I do not have any crazy dreams I want to realize. I might start studying. We will see.”
And will he be back for Rio 2016? Again, he says, “We will see.”